Nearly one in three teenagers currently has an anxiety disorder, according to the National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation, and the need for mental-health assistance continues to grow. The Yedid Nefesh initiative, from the Foundation for Jewish Camp and with funding from The Marcus Foundation, will support its third cohort of camps this summer, including Rhode Island’s Camp JORI. Two other groups of camps already participate in the initiative.
The initiative directly funds camps to hire mental-health professionals, provide more robust staff support, create wellness spaces and activities, and increase access to mental-health services for campers and staff alike.
“So, I would say what COVID brought us is kids who really struggle socially in groups, they struggle in the camp setting,” said Kara Liberman, co-director of Camp JORI, in Wakefield. “You’re constantly with a big group of people and some kids just aren’t used to that anymore, and they need help reengaging.”
Children who entered school and camp during the pandemic have different needs from children in the past, she said.
“They also need to know where they can go when they need a break,” Liberman said. “Sometimes it’s just to get into a quiet safe space. Camp can be loud, camp can be very overstimulating.”
Camp JORI is open to “kids of all different financial backgrounds, all different observance levels, even different religions,” Liberman pointed out. The needs of the children and staff vary widely and are constantly evolving, so the support needs to do the same, she said.
“I would genuinely say that the mental-health component is just as important for us to support our staff and for our campers,” Liberman said. “And we’ve seen that in the past couple of years, too.”
Camp JORI is using some of its grant to hire an additional staff member, Anna Smith, who has worked in schools as a special education teacher and has experience working with camps.
“Not only has she worked with kids in the public schools, but she also had the experience of living the dream of camp,” said Alicia McGee, LCSW, Camp JORI co-director. “She’s one of those people you talk to, and she really invests her whole self into the program, which you want. It’s hard to find a grown-up with these skill sets that is going to take away their life for seven to eight weeks.”
In addition, Camp JORI will use some of the grant money to create a space in its health center where campers can go to unwind and regulate. The space will be safe, quiet and relaxing, with a noise machine, oil diffusers, soft music and comfortable seating.
“[It’s] just to kind of give yourself a little break from, you know, the overstimulating world,” Liberman explained. “Because every year that goes by this need grows.”
At “camp in general, they’re running from activity to activity, they wake up at eight o’clock, and they are going strong, and they’re going full force until maybe 10 o’clock at night,” Liberman said. “It’s a long day, especially for kids who aren’t used to it.”
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the prevalence of youth experiencing clinical anxiety doubled around the globe in 2020, during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. At camp, where students might be away from their usual mental-health support systems, or might face the new responsibilities of living on their own, symptoms can spike.
When asked what young people were dealing with at camp, Liberman replied, “Oh, I would definitely say just anxiety and OCD [Obsessive Compulsive Disorder]. Generally.”
McGee said, “I think the reason I love camp for my family and for kids is that it’s an opportunity to detox from using the phone and from social media. I also think it’s a double-edged sword. I think we’re losing our older teens more quickly, because they’re not ready to do that.”
McGee said parents can help ease the transition to camp in a few different ways, including communicating with camp staff about any issues their child might be having and letting them know if the child is seeing a therapist.
“If your kid is seeing a therapist, you don’t need to stop that in the summer,” said McGee. “Just like they have their Bar Mitzvah tutoring, if it’s needed, these are pieces of who they are.”
She also recommends having a conversation with your child that supports the idea that “the camp environment is going to be positive for them,” she said. She encourages parents to tell their child to “give it a chance.”
SARAH GREENLEAF (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the digital marketing specialist for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and writes for Jewish Rhode Island.